In a personal testimony of how NAFTA’s non-enforced environmental policies have harmed Mexican citizens along the border, the Sierra Club documents this heartbreaking story:
The Ironweed Film Club interviewed Steve Mills of the Sierra Club about his new short film, Matamoros: The Human Face of Globalization. Here is what he had to reveal:
In February of 2001, the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors met with local groups in Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Tamaulipas to assess the environmental damage inflicted by the rapid industrialization of the border. Our board was so stunned by what they saw that the visit prompted the creation of a multi-year project to support Mexican grassroots environmental and community organizations in their fight for environmental justice. In partnership with The Sierra Club Foundation, the Sierra Club’s “Beyond the Borders – Mexico Project”, including its grant component, was created. We wanted to highlight the shortcomings of NAFTA and other similar international trade agreements that fail to protect worker’s health and the environment. We also wanted to educate American consumers about the impact that our industries and our consumption was and is having abroad.
The Sierra Club explains the detailed history behind NAFTA’s disregard for environmental and human rights concerns in the small border town of Matamoros, where the maquiladoras (tariff-free factories on the U.S.-Mexican borders) became one of the fastest growing industries:
Low Wages, Long Hours
- One of the main goals of Mexico’s Border Industrialization Program was to attract foreign investment. In order to do that, Mexican labor must remain cheap and competitive with other major export countries to keep the United States firms operating within the Mexican assembly plants.
- To keep production high and costs low, maquiladoras have been accused of harsh working environments, which include low wages, forced overtime, and illegal working conditions for minors.
- Employee turnover is also relatively high, reaching up to 80 percent in some maquiladoras, due in part to stress and health threats common to this type of labor.
- Although the La Paz Agreement signed by Mexico and the United States in 1983 requires hazardous waste created by United States’ corporations to be transported back to the U.S. for disposal, many companies avoid paying disposal costs by dumping toxins and other waste into Mexico’s rivers or deserts.
- The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that only 91 of the 600 maquiladoras located along the Texas-Mexico border have returned waste to the United States since 1987.
- Although NAFTA recognizes the need to prevent hazardous waste, Mexico’s waste imports have nearly doubled in recent years, and most of this waste comes from the United States.
- Local Mexican governments have financially been unable to provide basic waste management services because maquiladoras pay few taxes, and as a result, there is more of an economic incentive to illegally dump hazardous waste than to safely and properly dispose of it.
- According to the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP), all streams and rivers in the border region have suffered some amount of devastation as a consequence of the maquila industry.
- Along with water contamination, health-threatening levels of pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, are also emitted into the air. Ongoing exposure to toxic wastes can contribute to health problems such as cancer, skin disease, hepatitis, and birth defects.
- Mexico does not have any laws requiring industries to publicize basic environmental data on their operations, and so Mexico does not keep a very accurate inventory of hazardous waste.
We’ve all heard about how Asian countries are effectively competing in a “race to the bottom” dependent on the multitude of unskilled workers they can exploit to bolster their economic growth on the world stage. However, one may be surprised to hear that America created a similar race for Latinos in the United States and Latin America under NAFTA policies.
Here are some fast facts on the ties between NAFTA and U.S.-Mexican relations, provided by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch:
- Sharp cuts in farm subsidy programs combined with the near-elimination of import restrictions on corn and other commodities resulted in dumped U.S. corn flooding the Mexican market, forcing over 1.3 million campesinos or peasant farmers off their land.
- Many U.S. agribusiness multinationals used NAFTA investment and service sector rules to buy corn-processing and tortilla-making factories in Mexico. Yet instead of falling (as “free” trade theory predicts), retail prices for food products increased sharply. The cost of tortillas rose by 50 percent in Mexico City and more in the countryside, even as prices paid to Mexican farmers for corn plummeted.
- Since NAFTA, a combination of factors – including the migration of so many campesinos to the cities – has caused Mexican industrial wages to decline by approximately 10 percent.
- During the ten years of the trade agreement, the U.S. manufacturing sector has lost almost 2.5 million jobs. What has not been recognized widely is that U.S. Latino workers are some of the hardest hit by the U.S. job losses to date. In 1999, an astounding 47 percent of the total number of workers who received federal assistance under a program for workers certified as having lost jobs as a direct result of NAFTA were Latino.
This data reveals that NAFTA policies were the source of significant job losses for both Latinos and Americans. Before criticizing the Latino labor force as as a threat to American jobs, it is important to realize that American policies played a large role in altering the dynamics of the U.S. manufacturing and agricultural industries.